July 10, 2007

Transliteracies, online reading and Wikipedia reliability

Writing about web page http://alumni.media.mit.edu/~fviegas/papers/history_flow.pdf

Last week I had a few days off, but I also attended a talk on “Transliteracies” at De Montfort’s Institute of Creative Technologies, by Professor Alan Liu from the University of California. I thought it sounded relevant to my investigations into the potential of Web 2.0 in the academic library setting.

It was a fairly highbrow talk, and I confess to feeling a little bit lost as I had never heard the term “transliteracy” before, and I still can’t be sure what it means after the lecture! Professor Liu did not attempt to explain it, so no doubt it is a term well understood by others, that I should look up. A quick Google indicates many results from the US, so perhaps it is a term more commonly used over there. In any case my lack of understanding didn’t impinge on the content of the lecture.

Professor Liu’s perspective is that online reading is really networked reading. It is non-linear reading, involving browsing, scanning and cursory reading. With Web 2.0 technologies collective and social reading practices are encouraged. Such practices have existed for a very long time before the advent of the Web or Web 2.0, eg with reading groups and reading aloud, etc. This long term view of reading and of published information was a theme throughout Professor Liu’s lecture.

The Web has need of information quality assurance, and the wider community of users of that information can “police” the content to ensure some kind of quality. Under 5% of visitors to wikipedia have contributed content to it, apparently. The community of users should police the quality of web content, and be separate from the community of authors, according to Professor Liu. Really what we need is for all users of web information to be aware of the provenance and reliability of the information they are reading.

The next part of the lecture got a bit more technical, talking about mark-up languages and ontologies to help computers to understand the text that we can read on a web page, and to follow who is reading what, who those people are linked to and so on. Such “social mark-up” can show what underlies authority and currency and help us in our evaluation of the quality of web resources. Professor Liu mentioned various projects relating to such developments.

One very interesting piece of work that Professor Liu highlighted was some research being done to graphically illustrate how Wikipedia entries are edited over time. I’ve linked to a pdf article describing this. The graphs created by researchers at MIT show patterns that indicate edit wars (eg for the “chocolate” page) and instances when a page had to be taken down. Such patterns indicate that the content of a particular page is controversial and therefore should be considered in a wider context. Professor Liu advocated highly visible flags on Wikipedia entries to indicate such usage patterns, or filters for searching based on the patterns. (Contentious pages on Wikipedia that are locked to prevent edit wars have a small padlock on the top right. This is a very discrete symbol and is easily missed.)

“Social mark-up” could be added to web pages off the back of Web 2.0 technologies, to help us to evaluate what we find… it sounds to me a bit like the complicated ways in which Google calculates which search results to present first. No doubt there will be new methods of assessing information quality and new ways of circumventing or taking advantage of those methods that will lead to more invention and so on… Information begets information (about the information) and all of it should be made available on the Web. It looks like the role of the information professional should be secure as the Web becomes ever more complicated to navigate, evaluate and understand.

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